Brain Pacemaker for Parkinson’s Disease

A sort of pacemaker for the brain is showing promising results in testing on people with Parkinson’s disease.

More than two hundred people with advanced Parkinson’s disease participated in testing, held at university and Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country. Some were treated only with medication; others were randomly assigned the surgery to implant electrodes that would stimulate the brain. (This “brain pacemaker” is also known as deep brain stimulation.)

After six months, the patients who had the brain pacemaker experienced a dramatic reduction in tremors, limb rigidity, and movement restriction. Many reported a reduction or termination of nerve burning/tingling sensations. They were able to move freely for an average extra five hours per day. This is pretty amazing!

However, the side effects of the surgery are a concern to researchers. Nearly forty percent of the participants who had the brain pacemakers suffered falls with injuries. Patients reported feeling so good that they forgot they had Parkinson’s disease. Other side effects can include infections and complications from surgery.

Overall, patients had big improvements — seventy-one percent of those who had surgery saw a dramatic reduction of symptoms. In the medication group, thirty-two percent of participants saw an improvement in symptoms. That’s still good, mind you. Parkinson’s is typically treated with drugs that stimulate dopamine production — for people suffering from the disease, the brain stops producing this chemical, which is necessary for movement.

One special feature about this study was the inclusion of patients over the age of seventy. Many studies on deep brain stimulation don’t include this age group. Older patients had a definite improvement after the surgery, but younger ones saw even more improvement than older ones did.

Thinking about deep brain stimulation? It isn’t cheap. The surgery and pacemaker cost around sixty thousand dollars. Medicare and some insurance companies may cover the procedure, though. Medication is a much cheaper treatment option — about five thousand dollars per year.